Local Government

Mixed Messages

In tonight’s City Council meeting, there was concern expressed about the 13-cent tax increase (on second reading).  The fact that these concerns didn’t arise until the second reading tells me that they’ve been getting some e-mails from the same folks who always want more, but always expect to pay less for it.

They ended up cutting $50k from the Economic Diversification Fund, but that’s less than a penny on the tax rate.  So, I’m not at all sure what the new tax rate will be — they didn’t cut enough to reduce the tax rate by a whole cent. 

In a similar vein, they voted down (3-3, as Councilman Hensley arrived later) a proposal to rezone a corner lot at Union Valley Rd and Illiinois Avenue, which had been slated for a Pilot gas station.  As Councilwoman Miller correctly pointed out, on Illinois Avenue from one side of the city limits to the other, there are only two gas stations: one at Hilltop, and the other, a BP station at Tulsa Rd.  Neither is known for being a low-price leader… but the Pilot could have captured some serious sales tax revenue from folks traversing through Oak Ridge, as well as those leaving Oak Ridge headed home to Knoxville each evening from Y-12 and other area employers.

In summary, no one wants to raise taxes, but they cut economic development funding, and rejected a reasonable rezoning request that would have brought new sales tax dollars.  We simply cannot continue to operate this way — if we do not want tax increases (and no one does), we simply must begin to allow some new business development in this city. 

Yeah, I should just shut up and be grateful that one one proposed a cut to the schools’ budget.  But unless we grow our tax base (with things like gas stations and hotels and new shopping centers that some people keep voting down), the schools cannot survive at the quality level that we expect.  Neither can your fire department, the police department, the library, our wonderful big outdoor pool, or lots of other things.

Cheese Wagons

The bids are in, the evaluation is finished, and the School Board’s extensive study and deliberation is completed.  We’ve had multiple opportunities for citizen input, and we’ve made a decision: we will change to contracted bus service beginning next year.  The cheese wagons will continue to roll.

We will provide bus service to all students, and it will cost less than what it currently costs for us to bus only those outside a mile radius of the schools.  The current bus drivers will have the first offer of employment, and they’ll get a raise.   They’ll also get additional driving opportunities that we can’t currently provide, so those who wish to work more hours (thus earning more) can.

They’ll be the only ones to get a raise, from the looks of the State budget cuts preliminarily outlined in the Governor’s address last night.

I’m glad that part is over; now, we just have to re-balance the budget. 

Storms Forecast

The Oak Ridge Schools budget was approved three weeks ago, with presentation to City Council delayed until Monday so that we could get bids in for bus service beforehand — just to make sure that one or more of the bids would come in close enough to our budgeted amount to make it work.  It looks like it will.

Unless, of course, there’s a significant change in projected revenue from the State (BEP funds).

The State Funding Board met this week to revise revenue forecasts, and the news was not good.  From the Tennessean:

The State Funding Board delivered grim economic forecasts on Thursday indicating that the state could have to cut up to $384 million in spending this year and shed up to $585 million from next year’s budget.

The board met to approve final revenue estimates that will be central to budget revisions in coming weeks. The board, which provides a range of estimates, said taxes will increase between a low of 0.25 percent and 1 percent this year, and between 1.25 percent and 1.75 percent next year.

State Finance and Administration Commissioner Dave Goetz said that translates into $315 million to $384 million in cuts to this year’s budget. Next year’s budget, which was introduced in January, will have to be reduced between $468 million and $585 million.

"A budget gap of that size will require us to look at everything," he said.

Preliminary indications are that the Governor and our local legislators will try to protect K-12 funding, although the teacher pay raises may not survive the cuts at the State level.

In a related cloudburst, some folks are upset that some graphs presented in the Funding Board’s meeting were not handed over to the press.  We do have an open records law, but it’s not immediately obvious if these particular pictorals fall under that category.  In any case, the same information is probably found in this report.

I think we’ll all feel a sense of relief when the Legislature passes a budget and goes home.   Unless, of course, they deviate substantially from the funding estimates provided to school systems last month, which could be the budgetary equivalent of a tree falling on the house in the midst of a late-Spring storm.

Budget Approval

The Oak Ridge Schools budget was approved last night, in what may be record time, with no last-minute changes.

When I saw WATE’s coverage, I felt as though they must have been at a different meeting — but I saw them there, heard them asking questions afterward.  All I can figure is that they wrote the story ahead of time, then liked the original better than what really happened, so they stuck with the first draft.

OAK RIDGE (WATE) — The Oak Ridge School Board approved the 2009 budget worth $51 Million Thursday, but not without a fight.

What fight?  There were exactly two motions in the Board meeting: one to approve travel expense statements for two members, and the other to approve the budget (which was not amended in any way last night).  Both passed unanimously.

I’m glad that it is done, and happy that we plan to restore bus service to all students.  I’m not at all happy that we cut ten teacher assistants, that we were unable to do more for our teachers, that we didn’t reinstate Driver Education (talk about a safety issue!), nor that our IT budget is woefully inadequate.  There are still unmet needs in our schools… but this year, there’s simply no way to do all the things we want and need to do.

But, we didn’t ask City Council for more than they can provide, and we did set forward a process to provide busing for all students next year.

There is relief that we accomplished the things that we did, but no feeling of satisfaction.  Because I realize that "better than some" still isn’t good enough.

School Budget 09

It’s the best of times, and the worst of times. Well, maybe second-worst.

This year’s FY09 school budget mostly meets our essential needs, and includes transportation for all students. Even those within a mile of the schools. We do lose 10 teacher assistants (as proposed; it hasn’t passed yet), provides a step increase for those eligible, as well as a 2% cost of living increase for teachers and staff.

However, there has been a barrage of questions, mostly from a small group who are obviously collaborating (as their e-mails are all cc’d to one another). I’ve compiled the budget Q&A’s from citizens, because it’s possible that others are wondering as well. I should note that the answers were provided by Karen Gagliano, Director of Business and Support Services for Oak Ridge Schools, so as to minimize any chance of error.

The trouble comes in that the budget assumes contracting transportation operations. We’ve seen that contracting food service operations has proven to provide the same or better service, while decreasing costs; that has shown that sometimes it’s better to hire someone whose primary business is the task at hand. We looked at contracting janitorial services a few years ago, but it just didn’t meet our needs. The food service contract does, and it appears that transportation contracting would work similarly well.

And save $99,466, while increasing bus service to include all students.

So, why are we getting a backlash on the budget and contracting proposal from the very people whose mission in life has been to secure transportation for all kids?

The magic of e-mail reveals much, especially when people forward or "reply to all" without thinking it all the way through. When I saw the following, at the bottom of an e-mail from someone else, I had to walk away from the computer for a few minutes:

From: [deleted]
Sent: Tuesday, April 08, 2008 12:21 PM
To: [deleted]
Subject: FW: Please read and ACT for Childrens’ safety and Social justice in general

We have been working so hard to get transportation for all Oak Ridge children in the best way for the city. The board just doesn’t know what questions to ask and what else to suggest. Please let them know that we need transportation for all children and give any suggestions you might have. They do not yet have a plan they are comfortable with.

The board just doesn’t know what questions to ask and what else to suggest? Excuse me?? Perhaps some people do not understand that we’ve had this information for more than a week now, that we’ve studied it diligently, and that we have asked a number of questions of the staff — usually by e-mail, as many things that we ask require a little research or calculation, and if you want the correct answer, it’s best to do it that way.

Before anyone hyperventilates, the sunshine law (Open Meetings Act) does not prohibit communication between staff and elected officials, just deliberation between elected officials on the same body, outside of public meetings.

Please let them know that we need transportation for all children…? This budget provides that. As it now stands (pending approval on Thursday night), there won’t be a fight with City Council. All kids will have access to bus service. No curriculum items will be cut.

* * *
It could get worse if the State decides to allocate less to K-12 education than they indicated prior to the release of this budget, but we won’t know until May. If that happens, we’ll be back to the chopping block. Current reports are not good.

Open Government

Most of you who know me, and some who don’t, know that I’ve advocated for five years that our school board packets be made available online. City Council has done so for some time now, and it’s not that hard to do. There is some redacted information (unapproved board minutes are one example), but now the public can see the same information that Board members have prior to each meeting.

Starting now, it’s there.

I have long believed that we would have more support and confidence from the public, if everyone could see the same information that we have when making decisions. Without question, it will spur additional questions and input, but that’s a good thing. If five minds are better than one, perhaps 27,000 are better than five.

I certainly do not expect that everyone in town is going to put the same time into understanding school governance that the five of us do, but it is your school system, and you have every right to be informed. That, and I do believe that if the public were more informed, we would also find them more supportive of our efforts.

Happy reading!

Blackwood Rules

In the long-awaited trial of Stuart v. Layton & the Election Commission, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood has again ruled to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint.  Even though acknowledging that hundreds of voters took longer than the state-allowed maximum of ten minutes, as well as acknowledging that the election commission’s procedures for voter identification was inconsistent between various precincts, Blackwood found that since these votes were not cast with fraudulent intent, the election stands.

What Blackwood seemed to be saying is, the laws don’t matter unless they’re intentionally violated with fraudulent intent.  Nevermind that the time limits were intentionally disregarded by election officials — because there was no finding of fraudulent intent, it doesn’t matter.

So if you happen to pick up a speeding ticket in your holiday travels, here’s your defense:  "Your honor, I didn’t mean to violate the law by not observing the posted limit.  I was just trying to reach my destination on time, which I did, so my incidental infraction is justified." 

(If this works for you, be sure and let me know.  I suspect it would only work in Blackwood’s court, and maybe then only if you cite Stuart v. Layton et al.)

The other thing that bothered me is his acceptance of the election commission’s premise that comparing signatures is an acceptable substitute for voter identification.  When you write a check, does the business accept your signature alone as verification that you are who you say you are?  Fat chance.

It’s not over, though; there will be an(other) appeal.  It’s my understanding that the Court of Appeals’ ruling was that the lower court (Blackwood) should rule on the facts — HOW MANY voters took more than 10 minutes (644, after adjusting for those who required assistance and are allowed extra time), and was that number greater than the margin of the election (119)?  The facts were found and proven.

The judge ruled though, on his interpretation, rather than the facts as requested by the Court of Appeals.   The next phase could be interesting.

Counterproductivity

Back in August, I wrote (here and here) about Anderson County’s internet filtering of all computers within the courthouse.  At the time, my primary objection was that the filtering was (and still is) selective — not based on appropriate content, but more along the lines of political thought.

Today, I learned that it’s actually hindering job performance in some cases.  An employee whose primary responsibility deals with overseeing the status and progress of children who are involved with the legal system, was attempting to access the legislative website of our congressman, Zach Wamp.  The employee knew that there was a paper there with information needed to better perform the job at hand.

The legislative site was blocked by the County’s filtering software.

Later, the same employee keyed in another well-known URL inadvertently using the wrong suffix (you know — dot-com instead of dot-org or dot-gov), and a full-fledged porn site popped up on the screen.  Unfiltered.

*  *  *  *  *
Content filters don’t work very well.  There are instances — in schools, for example — where it’s mandatory (i.e., required by the federal government as a condition of receiving e-rate funds) to have some filtering in place, but in the workplace, it’s just as likely to hinder productivity.  What would be far more useful is a tracking system so that it’s possible to see the sites where employees are spending their time.  If recreational web surfing is a problem, deal with the problem.

That just makes too much sense for government, though.

Let’s get it right

An AP story ran in the News-Sentinel yesterday, and in the Oak Ridger today, entitled "School officials reviewing state’s bus policy after death." Unfortunately, the story contains some errors — very slight, perhaps just sloppy wordsmithing — but errors nonetheless.

If people are to effect policy change, they must understand clearly who’s policy is what.

Tennessee’s policy states that all students who live more than a mile and a half from their school are allowed to ride the bus.

That’s not quite right. The State of Tennessee makes no policy about who can or cannot ride the bus. The State’s policy is that they will partially reimburse school districts for the cost of transporting students who live more than 1.5 miles from school; however, school districts are not prohibited from offering more — they just have to come up with all of the money.

What State policy does say is that school districts who accept any state funding for transportation are forbidden to charge a fee to any student for riding the bus, even those students who live within the 1.5 mile radius, for whom the State pays nothing.

Bus service was curtailed in 2006 in order to balance the budget. It wasn’t a political ploy (as many assume, including one of today’s letter writers); is was, quite simply, an unpleasant choice between cutting educational services and non-educational services.

Many people have indicated that they would be willing to purchase bus tickets or passes, and that would certainly be one of the easier options. To do so, though, we need for the State to change their policy prohibiting such. I have inquired, but still do not know, whether that’s a law passed by the Legislature, or simply a rule of the State Board of Education.

We have our work cut out for us.

City Council, Nov. 19

Following the invocation and pledge, Mayor Beehan read the following statement on the loss of Ashley Paine:

The family of Ashley Paine has suffered a tragic loss. On behalf of this Council, and the city as a whole, I want to express our deepest sympathy to the family of Ashley Paine. This has been a tragic loss for the city, as well, and we as Councilmembers grieve for her family’s loss.

She was not only a blessing to her family, but to her town, her church community, and especially to Robertsville Middle
School.

This loss, on a personal level, has changed us as indivuals and as a community. We have been deeply moved by this event, and the celebration of Ashley’s life.

This was a tragic accident, and in our opinion, not a time to place blame, but an opportunity to make a difference, and to refocus our community to be even better.

We will continue to work in partnership with the Oak Ridge School Board to create solutions to issues of traffic safety. And in the same vein, it’s time now to look at traffic safety issues all over the city, not only in and around our schools, but in our neighborhoods and our main arteries, such as the Oak Ridge Turnpike.

We need to ensure the our town is “walker friendly”. We should revisit our greenways, sidewalks and bike paths systems to make sure they are adequate, accessible, and safe. Our passion will be to make this a pedestrian friendly city. Greenways and bike paths are a great assets to communities that are revitalizing in America.

God bless Ashley, and her family. The entire Oak Ridge Community is mourning her death. And the same time celebrating her life, and what she has passed on to others that they may live productive and fulfilling lives.

May God bless her as she enters to his loving care, and may he comfort her family and friends with the knowledge that even though she was here a short time, by her life and death, she has made a tremendous impact on the lives of others.

Jim O’Connor then presented some of the solutions investigated by the City. The new school zone lights are installed and operational along Illinois Avenue near Robertsville. Speed and traffic light camera enforcement is being investigated. Pedestrian rights of way are being studied for Council to consider. More specific detail on these issues is requested for the December Council meeting, and Mayor Beehan requests that citizens utilize electronic communication (e-mail) on the city’s website to submit specific suggestions and ideas.

A discussion ensued as to the practicality of the pedestrian crossing buttons on traffic lights; the standard design in Tennessee is to have the pedestrian button on the traffic island, such that a pedestrian has to cross the turn lane before being able to activate the crossing signal.

The School Resource Officer is already working with students who walk/bike to school to promote safe practices.

Tom Hayes points out that speed is a major factor in traffic accidents in Oak Ridge. Tom Beehan points out that there will probably be some angry citizens when tickets are issued for speeding and running red lights, but that everyone needs to understand that this is for the overall safety of our residents.

On approval of the agenda, Mayor Beehan added a first reading of a zoning change for a new Tractor Supply in the old Food City East location. Next, he asked if there were any citizens present who wished to speak during the "appearance of citizens" (normally at the end of the agenda). He was prepared to move that to the beginning, but no one indicated a desire to speak. The agenda was approved as amended.

On the issue of rezoning Clark’s Preserve, there were no citizens to speak at the public hearing. Next, they addressed the proposed rezoning of 203 Michigan Avenue (site of the First Christian Church that burned) from residential to office, for a medical office park. Again, no one rose to address Council on the rezoning. The third item for public hearing was the 08/09 Community Development Block Grant plan; again, no one addressed Council on any of these three items.

Next, Council heard the annual report of the Oak Ridge Heritage Railroad Authority. Approximately $1.4M in state funding has been garnered to maintain bridges and railroad lines.

On the rezoning of property at 203 Michigan and west Madison Lane, Ellen Smith noted that council members are in receipt of a petition opposing the rezoning.  However, the petition was never submitted to the City Clerk, so it cannot be included in the minutes from the last meeting (when the petition was presented).

I’m not feeling at all well, so I’m hanging it up for the evening.

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